“I better document this,” Björk wearily sings on “Stonemilker,” the opening song on her ninth studio album, Vulnicura (or, literally in Latin, “wound heal.”) And so begins what is, undoubtedly, her most personal album to date. (Let’s get the Björkney Jean joke out the way right now.)
In retrospect, the intimacy of Vulnicura only makes its two month premature leak feel all the more invasive and gross. But she’s handled that situation with dignity, choosing to make the record available to the public immediately rather than making a huge fuss. (I made the fuss on her behalf, should you care.)
While it isn’t much of a surprise to learn that the avant-garde Icelandic icon’s break-up with longtime collaborator/partner Matthew Barney provided inspiration for her new record, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have predicted such a raw, blunt account of the entire process from start to finish: This is a straight up break-up album, in the grand tradition of classics like Jagged Little Pill and 21. Except, you know, Björk style.
Having just spent her time twirling ’round the cosmos and delving into the building blocks of humankind on 2011’s overly ambitious, app-meets-science project Biophilia, Björk now comes to us on the near opposite end of the spectrum with Vulnicura, working with a more narrow focus: Herself — specifically her broken heart, her newfound role as a single mother, and unforeseen challenges being thrown in her direction as of late.
The split has also seemingly inspired something of a sonic return to form, or perhaps an unconscious need for familiarity. Teaming up with two collaborators — young Venezuelan producer Arca (FKA Twigs, Kanye West) and The Haxan Clock — Björk lovingly revisits the soundscapes of some of her most memorable records from years ago.
But unlike any other album she’s recorded before, this album is very much a linear story: The songs go in mostly chronological order, tracking her experiences from before the break-up to over a year afterward.
The album’s opener, written nine months before the break-up according to the liner notes, drowns out her early sorrows in washes of deep, emotional strings recalling “Joga.” Peeling back the layers (to quote “Wanderlust”), there is a genuine hurt and heartbreaking vulnerability that courses through the song — and all of Vulnicura, for that matter: “Show me emotional respect, I have emotional needs/I wish to synchronize our feelings.”
“Lionsong” continues the singer’s slow spiral toward her relationship’s demise 5 months prior, echoing the same concerns incessantly on repeat: “Maybe he will come out of this loving me, maybe he won’t…” It’s a borderline obsessive rumination, as the songstress continuously considers how to elicit any sort of reaction from her lover.
Later on, she explores the tense chilliness of their final few evenings together on “History Of Touches,” which bristles uncomfortably across jagged, jet black textures. “Every single touch we ever touch each other/Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse,” she declares. What a line!
“Black Lake” is, effectively, the core wound of Vulnicura: It is the most hurt, most bitter, most devastatingly personal moment Björk has arguably ever produced on record. “I am one wound, my pulsating body/suffering being,” she sadly announces before kicking off the 10-minute epic. There are sweeping pauses throughout, like quiet moments of reflection of what’s been lost, before the singer presses forward time again and again. Five minutes in, the strings make way for aggressively pounding beats. And trust, she’s getting real: “Family was always our sacred mutual mission…which you abandoned.” The heaviest of hearts.
Things somehow get darker, and creepier, on “Family,” which plays like a kind of sci-fi funeral dirge of sorts while the poetess mourns the loss of her family — at least, the way she’s known it to be “Where do I go to make an offering to mourn our miraculous triangle, father mother child?” she demands. The track expands like the frighteningly tense crescendo in a horror movie, building up, up, up until at last — well, more strings! It’s only the song’s final few moments that she experiences a breakthrough: “I raise a monument of love/There is a swarm of sound around our heads, and we can hear it and we can get healed by it.” It’s a major meta moment: The song comes to a close with an extended celestial two minute instrumental outro, which seems to be the very swarm of sound she’s singing about.
“If I regret us, I’m denying my soul to grow/Don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal,” she declares before a soldiering pulse and trickling beats kicks in with “Notget,” a song written 11 months after their break-up — and a spot-on representation of the album’s overall intention.
Of course, she can’t do it entirely alone: Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) makes a return on the 8-minute “Atom Dance,” having supplied his delicate, quivering vocals to “The Dull Flame Of Desire” and “My Juvenile” on 2007’s Volta. He supplies background vocals here, acting as the dance partner for what sounds like the least fun party ever. “When you feel the flow as primal love, enter the pain and dance with me,” the singer invites along the quirky waltz for broken-hearted lovers.
By “Mouth Mantra,” Björk has found her voice once again — quite literally — in a wailing, string-laden ode (complete with glitchy electronic zaps and vocal loops) to her “noise pipe.” It’s like an extended vocal warm-up session from the singer who recognizes her calling: “I have followed a path that took sacrifices/Now I sacrifice this scar, can you cut it off?” It may also have to do with the fact that her voice literally was stopped briefly due to nodes, which she underwent surgery to remove in 2012.
The album comes to a somewhat abrupt end with “Quicksand,” the oldest song on the album according to an interview with the New York Times, written in 2011 after her mother’s heart attack. “And if she sinks, I’m going down with her,” Björk promises. (She recovered, thankfully.) The tune — broken by skittering beats and bright strings — isn’t about her break-up, but follows along the same general theme as the rest of the record: Family, fear and a general shaking of faith.
A “return to form” might not be the most accurate description of Vulnicura, but it is, at the very least, a “returning to form.” The production feels like an ode to albums past, skipping right past the brief fling with Timbaland on Volta and the obtuseness of Biophilia into the majestic sounds of Vespertine, Homogenic and Post.
Admittedly, while the music may conjure a kind of nostalgia for Björk’s back catalog, the phrasing throughout Vulnicura is nearly as challenging as Biophilia. And, as a result, the lyricism can sometimes get lost in the erratic flow of Björk’s unusual brand of melody-making. That’s not to say she’s supposed to be a pop diva, obviously, but she’s had more clear-cut delivery in the past. “Hyperballad”? “Human Behavior”? “All Is Full Of Love”? Those songs now feel like mainstream Top 40 pop hits by comparison.
But then, Vulnicura really isn’t about what’s most soothing to our ears. It’s almost shocking that it’s reached our ears to begin with, for that matter: This is a therapy session, compiled by one of the most profoundly advanced musical geniuses of our time.
Björk’s music often feels otherworldly. She is someone who sees, hears and generally experiences the world in an incredibly unique way. And yet, this one universal experience — a rough break-up, along with a few other undesirable life situations, including an ill family member and a frightening surgery — proves how very human she actually is.
Vulnicura is her healing process, and one that will more than likely strike a chord for anyone who’s ever been dealt this same kind of wound.
‘Vulnicura’ was released on January 20. (iTunes)